King Of Kings

by June 12, 2010

SLAM 7 Feature: Earl Manigault

But Manigault, who had racked up more minutes on the streets than in the classroom, felt he wouldn’t be able to handle the academic work at a prominent college, and chose instead to attend Johnson . Smith University, a predominantly black school in Charlotte, N.C.

That decision backfired, as Manigault continued to struggle in the classroom.  He didn’t get along with his coach, either, and lasted less than a year at the school.

“The coach didn’t want me to play in my first year. says Manigault.  “He said to me ‘I want to give the seniors a chance.’ I looked at him and said ‘The seniors? Are you kidding me? I’m better than all of them.’  But he wasn’t kidding, and it came down to either me leaving or the coach changing his mind.  Finally, I just got up and left.”

Finding himself depressed, and with no desire to play college basketball, Manigault went back to the comforts of his old playground and to the dangers of his old neighborhood.  His schoolyard buddy, Kareem (who was then known as Lew Alcindor), was long gone for the West Coast, where he was becoming a household name at UCLA.

“That’s when I went straight to the bottom,” said Manigault.  “That’s when I started messingwith the “white lady.”

The “white lady” that Manigault is referring to was heroin.  He becme a hard-core junkie, and in order to support his $100-per-day addiction, he resorted to thievery.  He went as far as stealing mink coats in Manhattan’s garment district to support his habit.

A legend with NBA potential, an idol to the locals who cheered him as he performed daring aerial feats, folks now watched helplessly and sadly as the Goat nodded pathtically in full view of the neighborhood, stumbling to the earth instead of gliding over it.

“It was a real waste; it was tragic,” says Jabbar.  “Here was a guy who had more than just talent, but a guy who had a lot of drive to his game, a guy who had a lot of pride.  He wasn’t a total loser like so many of the guys he hung around with, and you never thought he could turn out that way.”

But he did, and it wasn’t long before the Goat was arrested for possession of drugs.

While still behind bars, Manigault’s legend continued to grow.  He was written about in The City Game (Harper’s Magazine Press, 1970), a book written by Pete Axthelm which caught the attention of Bill Daniels, owner of the Utah Stars of the ABA.

When Manigault was released from prison in 1970 at the age of 25, the Stars offered him a tryout.  The Goat lasted midway through the preseason, and just before an eagerly-anticipated exhibition game against Milwaukee and his boyhood chum, Kareem, the Goat was cut.

“I drove Earl to the airport when he flew to Utah,” remembers Willie Mangham, one of Manigault’s former teammates at Benjamin Franklin.  “But it was too late for him. His body had been through too much. He couldn’t take the pace.”

After spending a short time in Utah, Manigault shunned an offer to tour with the Harlem Globetrotters and soon returned to Goat Park on 98th Street and Amsterdam Avenue to start up the Goat Tournament, a prestigious summertime spectacular which over the years has featured future NBA talents such as Reggie Carter, Bernard and Albert King and Mario Ellie.  “I decided I wanted to give something back to the community because of all the respect and attention the people gave me over the years, even when I was at my lowest point,” says Manigault.  “It was my way of saying thanks to all the people who stuck with me during my hard days-my drug days.”

Despite his good intentions, the Goat’s ugly drug habits resurfaced, and in 1977, he started messing with heroin again.

That summer, Manigault cancelled the first day of the Goat Tournament, got in a car and headed to the Bronx.

“We had a plan to steal $6 million,” said Manigault, who has never revealed that plan.  “But we got busted.  They figured I was the ringleader. I got two years.”

After serving two years at the Bronx House of Detention and the State prison in Ossining, Manigault, who never married, took his two youngest sons and moved to Charleston, far away from New York City and the temptation of drugs.

Manigault, however, did not last long in Charleston, as the guilt of abandoning his tourney and those who loved him in New York proved too much to ignore.

In 1980, Manigault returned back to his domain and brought back the Goat Tournament, which has continued uninterrupted every year since.

“When I was growing up, I looked up to guys like Tom Sanders, Cal Ramsey and Holcombe Rucker,” says Manigault.  “The kids I left behind looked up to me. They needed me to come back.”

Jabbar, an actor now, makes his home in Cali, yet understands Manigault’s desire to return to their old childhood.

“He represents a lot to that community,” says Jabbar.  He represents a failure where there could have been achievement.  A lot of people there live with a sense of failure, so they can relate to him.”  More importantly, Manigault has finally managed to kick his drug habit for good by treating his disease like a deadly opponent.

“It was killing my body, and I was tired of looking the same way day in and day out,” Manigault explains. “It took a lot of guts and a lot of pain, but I did it.  I came out of it the way I went into it.  No medication, no hospitals, no counseling.

“I conquered drugs the way I once conquered my opponents,” Manigault continues.  “I envision myself going to the basket, but the defender, in this case, drugs, was standing between me and my goal.  So I faked it left and I faked it right, but the defender was still there.

“The only way I could get over the defender was to soar right over him-and I did. I flew high toward the basket, and I scored again.”

Though Manigault has won the war against drugs, too many lost battles with alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and heroin have left him frail, soft-spoken and weak. He has already been through two heart surgeries, including corrective surgery on two valves in 1989.

“At the moment, I need a heart transplant,” says Manigault.  “My blood is not pumping to my heart at a normal pace, and all my doctors are telling me that my heart is weak, and it is all attributed to drugs.”

Sensing that he might appear a bit too worried, the toughness, stubbornness and foolishness tht have led Earl Manigault through and unfulfilled journey in this lifetime, envelop hiim like a steel shell.

“They say I need a transplant, but I say I feel good,” says Manigault.  “I’m working with so many ids, that I just can’t sit down and think about it.”

As Manigault watches the youngsters trying to emulate their fallen ing, he shakes his head.

“I look at these kids, and I think back to the good old days,” says the Goat.  I think back to me and Kareem playing on this very court, practicing our moves and teaching each other how to get to the basket.  It was a long time ago, but I still remember telling Kareem that he would never be respected if he didn’t play tough.  I think it helped him a little bit and he helped me.  We both learned from each other.  I really loved that guy.”

As one of the youngsters attempts to dribble past Manigault, he quickly reaches in with a quick hand and steals the ball.

“It’s hard to believe, but all of a sudden, I’m 50 years old,” Manigault says, staring at the basketball as if all of his memories were locked inside of it.  “Kareem used to stop by the tournament once in a while, but I haven’t seen him in a few years.

“Life is funny that way,” says Earl Manigault, the man who flew higher than any other player his size in New York City.  “You never know how people are going to turn out.